Thursday, July 11, 2013

Interchangeable Characters

Like many writers, my TBR list is a seemingly unconquerable list of highly recommended books from friends and literary critics, fascinating concept novels, and the occasional compelling nonfiction book. Why is it, then, that whenever I go to the library, I find myself browsing the library shelves, adding random uncertain books to my pile? Isn't my list already long enough? Besides, you really can't judge a book by its cover or its blurb, and most of this random shelf-surfing has ended in tears (don't talk to me about clones, futuristic weavers, or poorly-developed steampunk worlds and the wooden characters that inhabit them*). 

I did, however, recently have one enjoyable acquisition: Soulbound, by Heather Brewer.

Description from Amazon: "Tril is a world where Barrons and Healers are Bound to each other: Barrons fight and Healers cure their Barrons' wounds in the ongoing war with the evil Graplar King. Seventeen-year-old Kaya was born a Healer, but she wants to fight. In Tril, and at Shadow Academy, where she is sent to learn to heal, it is against Protocol for Healers to fight. So Kaya must learn in secret. Enter two young men: One charming, rule-following Barron who becomes Bound to Kaya and whose life she must protect at all costs. And one with a mysterious past who seems bent on making Kaya's life as difficult as possible. Kaya asks both to train her, but only one will, and the consequences will change their lives forever."

The book does have a few gaping plot holes, but nonetheless, I had a good time reading it, and I'll get the sequel when it comes out. But there was, however, one problem with the main character that lead me to write this post.

Kaya is a great, strong female character. She has all the hallmarks: she's stubborn, intelligent, brave, and distrustful of authority - and learns to fight in an improbable amount of time. But that's also kind of the problem - she's too much like every other strong heroine out there. So much so, that I think you could pull her out of the book and put her in any other world, and she'd fit in just fine.

And thus, in a very roundabout way, we've arrived at my main point: an often overlooked aspect of character development is setting. It's a little hard to explain, but I think that for secondary world fantasy, the characters need to be firmly grounded in their world in order to be truly well-rounded. Think of Jedi knights - their personalities are so aligned with the Jedi philosophy, that if you moved them to any other setting, they'd stick out like a sore thumb.** 

Normally, at this point in the post, I would offer observations on how to fix the problem I've identified. But this time... it's hard to say. So I'm asking all of you out there: how do you make your characters fit into your world? Is it philosophy, like in those sci-fi staples Star Wars and Star Trek? If your setting is historical, how do you portray historically accurate cultural attitudes without offending 90 percent of the planet? How do you make a female character align to modern notions of strength but not be totally anachronistic?

The future characters of the world thank you for your input.

*Not wooden in the literal sense... though that would be cool. "In a world of steel, she's the only natural thing left..."
With quality ideas like these, it's shocking how I'm not world-famous yet.

**These aren't the characters you're looking for.


  1. Good writing helps. Also, I think all heroes need to have a personal conflict--something to overcome besides warlords and demons. Everybody has a weakness, and it is the writer's job to clue us in to that. All my heroes need personal growth or I'm just bored.
    ~Just Jill

    1. I think sometimes that authors mistake characters learning new things as actual character growth. Learning terrifying secrets can shape your personality, but sometimes those lines aren't drawn clearly enough.

  2. Interesting observation. My suggestion is the develop character and world build at the same time. As you are building your world, think how would this affect the character? and as you are developing your character, you need to think what kind of world would a person like this come from?

    I also think that there are a lot of characters that just can be transported to different worlds without a problem (like Princess Leia and Han Solo), and that doesn't necessarily make them bad (although it is more interesting when they do fit perfectly into one world). What is most important is that the character makes sense in his/her world. I think that is a challenge when you are trying to put modern sensibilities into historical or medieval-like second world settings.

    Definitely something to think about.

    1. That's a good point, MaryAnn. It makes me realize more and more that you really have to develop a world in order to develop a proper story - in other words, all those aspects need to come into being together (plot, character, setting, etc). Otherwise, whole facets of the story can feel lacking.

      And once I figure out how to actually do that, I'll get back to you.

  3. Nice, honest review. I do love character-driven stories, and to me it's so important to let the character's character shine through. So even with an interesting storyline, I'd feel lacking if the characters were underdeveloped. Writer’s Mark

    1. It's actually kind of sad how few true character-driven stories there are out there. Scott Lynch's "The Lies of Locke Lamora" is a great example of a truly character-driven story. For the most part, the characters shape the events around them, though the plot does hit back every once in a while!

  4. In a world of steel... You're killing me with this. We need to add more * moments in Alchemy. We just do.

    I love this. It reminds me of that one character exchange challenge we did over at hatrack, where we introduced random characters and wrote scenes outside of their own world. That was fun.

    Great post.

    1. I definitely see Sam as the footnote kind of guy. :)


Got an opinion? Use it! Remember... be silly, be honest, and be nice/proofread.